Alberta Yogurt: How Bles-Wold started a thriving, value added business
Lacombe-area dairy uses big business thinking to help out their smaller scale operation
by Geoffrey Morgan
Photo by Bryce Meyer
Bles-Wold Yogurt might have started small, but this local dairy product supplier has always had big ambitions.
Since 1996, Bles-Wold has grown from a small farmers market-oriented operation into a regional supplier of dairy products to supermarkets between Calgary and Edmonton, capitalizing on the local-food movement. The business started small when Tinie Eilers, who had emigrated from the Netherlands not long before, decided to start making her own yogurt in the kitchen of her farmhouse near Lacombe. Eilers’s husband, Hennie Bos, ran the family’s Bles-Wold dairy farm, which provided Eilers with the necessary ingredients to make a batch of yogurt.
Soon enough, Eilers says she was making yogurt in a pail every day and her husband suggested she market her product commercially. “I did a couple of farmers markets,” Eilers says. “Lacombe, Red Deer, Ponoka, Bentley, and I did the [Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market] for a little bit in Edmonton. That’s a quick way to find out what people like and don’t like.”
That was in 1996, just two years after the family had immigrated to Canada. Today, Eilers makes about 5,000 litres of Bles-Wold yogurt a week and employs six people. Bles-Wold Yogurt Inc. first made the jump from farmers market to grocery store in Lacombe, when the local Co-op grocery store started carrying Eilers’s product. Two other Co-op stores in Red Deer followed suit before Eilers approached the Calgary Co-op chain. Now, Bles-Wold yogurt is also sold in Sunterra Market stores, and Eilers hopes to see it added to the shelves at Save-On-Foods next.
The scale of Bles-Wold’s operation, in combination with its ready supply of fresh milk, gives it the ability to respond in very short order to market demands. “This morning, we were milking the cows and it came right from the cows to our yogurt barn through an underlying pipe,” she says. “So we can have our yogurt on the shelf – from cow to shelf – in three days.”
“We were one of the first in Alberta,” Bos says of Bles-Wold’s on-the-farm commercial facility for consumer products. Bos oversees the dairy farm operations with the help of his son-in-law and staff. The farming operation has grown in tandem with the yogurt business. When the farm started milk production in 1995, Bos oversaw a 65-cow operation. Today, Bles-Wold farm has 270 milking cows, another 30 currently dry cows and 200 young calves and heifers.
Bos sells his milk to producers like Saputo, but also directs product to the yogurt – and now sour cream, yogurt drink and Greek yogurt – production facility. “A couple of times a week, and that’s based on demand for yogurt, we transfer milk from our dairy operation to our processing operation, which is only 50 feet away,” he says.
While the vertical integration between Bos’s farm and Eilers’s production facility makes Bles-Wold act like one cohesive unit, they’re actually two separate companies. “We’ve kept them separate for business purposes but also for liability purposes,” Bos says. “But, you know, Tinie and I are married and we sit around the table every day and talk business all the time. So it is managed from one centre.”